Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Right Writers' Group

How do you find a writers’ group?

That part’s not too difficult. You can find one via the internet; you can look for or put up notices in libraries or coffee shops.

But how do you find the right writers’ group?

That’s a little bit more complicated.

It’s a bit like putting together a hockey team to win the Stanley Cup. You can have twenty-two outstanding players. However, if the chemistry is there, they won’t win the Cup. It’s about more than talent – it’s how well they mesh.

I belonged to a wonderful writers’ group for about five or six years once. Much of what we worked on together was published. Here’s how we did it:

We all worked on different projects. We weren’t all one type of writer. I think that if everyone in the group writes in the same genre, you can’t help but start to mimic, unconsciously, each other’s voices. Also, I like the perspective I get, say, on my mystery from someone who’s working on a tome about botany on Cape Cod. The fresh viewpoint is helpful. It keeps me from over explaining things to people not in the business; it also keeps me from adding too many in jokes.

We met every three weeks. None of us could manage once a week. Living in New York, you’re lucky to see your closest friends once a year. Once a month felt like it was too long in between meetings. Every three weeks felt about right. It gave us a week to think about our discussions; a week to work on rewrites or new stuff; and a week to edit.

Materials were handed out and read in between sessions. If you missed a session, you were still responsible for getting both your pages to everyone in the group, and your comments on the materials read in between sessions. Listening to a writer read out loud doesn’t work for me. I want to see the words on the page.

Having said that, there were plenty of times when we wanted/needed to work on sections of dialogue. So we’d take a few minutes to read the material; then people who each take a role and we’d read out loud, sort of like a table read for a play. And we’d discuss the cadence of the dialogue.

Working in theatre for my entire adult life gives me the luxury of knowing many actors; if I’m not sure if dialogue works, I can pull a couple of friends into a room, hand them pages, and we read aloud. They can also tell me if it feels wrong when they try to speak it.

We managed to get through the comments on everyone’s work in every session. And these were lively discussions. The most important rule was that the criticism be constructive.

None of us were jealous of each other. We might feel an occasional pang of envy, but there was no jealousy. We all understood that there is an insatiable need for stories, and you can never have too many good writers out there, not matter what sort of bull-wacky the publishing world promotes to keep writers running scared and accepting the lowest amount of money possible.

Our aim was to help each other write the best stories we could possible write, and help each other find our unique voices. Then, we’d help each other through the publishing and promotion circuses.

But without the words being the best they can be – and that means rewriting and rewriting and rewriting – there’s nothing to promote.

Finding the right people is a gut sensation. Don’t be impressed or turned off by credits or lack thereof. How do you respond to the individual as a person? Do you like the way he or she tells a story? Does the work move you? Do you feel there’s potential for growth? Is there a lack of agenda imposition? You don’t need a wanna-be writer who only wants to tell everyone else how to do things – yet can’t back any of it up. You want to be with a group of people who want everyone in the group to succeed.

If someone does start to hurt the group, you can’t be afraid to speak up. Letting it go only allows it to escalate. It has to be discussed. The person in question has to be spoken to, and decisions need to be made. It’s far more useful to remove one person who stirs the poison pot then let the group fall apart because of the person. While it’s important for the group to have a leader, or for leadership to rotate through the group, it’s equally important to remove bullies.

It takes a long time, sometimes. I’d love to be a part of another live group someday (I have a strong group of cyber writers around me). However, I’ll know when I’ve found the right ones, and the day is not today.

Part of what makes us so wonderful is our uniqueness. That’s also part of what makes it so difficult to find the right agent, the right editor, the right publisher – and the right writers’ group.

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